MANHUNTER VS. RED DRAGON

Manhunter (1986) 4 stars
Based on the Novel “Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris
Written and Directed by Michael Mann
Starring William L. Petersen, Tom Noonan, Joan Allen, Kim Greist, Dennis Farina and Brian Cox as Doctor Hannibal Lecktor

Red Dragon (2002) ***
Based on the Novel by Thomas Harris
Written by Ted Tally and Directed by Brett Ratner
Starring Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker, Harvey Keitel and Anthony Hopkins as Doctor Hannibal Lecter

The First And Most Chilling Chapter in the Hannibal Lecter Triology.

You gotta love cheezy taglines, especially when they’re right. Thomas Harris wrote three Hannibal Lecter novels and “Red Dragon” is the best of the bunch. It has the meatiest characters, the tightest storyline and the author’s tendency towards Grand Guignol is under control for once. Francis Dolarhyde’s grandmother may have jagged false teeth that look as if they belonged to a Yeti and people have shards of mirror jammed into their eyes; but no one’s getting parts of their own brain fed back to them as an amuse-bouche. Unlike later works *coughHannibalTheNovelcough* we’re within the realm of the possible here.

The book was adapted to the screen twice. The first time in 1986 with the name changed to Manhunter and then in 2002 back under the original title.

There’s no need to wonder why this was remade. According to the IMDB “Manhunter”‘s total US gross at the box office was a little over 8 million dollars while it cost 15 million to produce. Do the math. There’s also the question of style. You watch its sequels “Silence of The Lambs” and Hannibal back to back and you’re in familiar-ish territory. Watch “Manhunter” and it’s like a “Miami Vice”/”CSI” episode based on the Harris novel. That wouldn’t do at all when it comes time for the “Hannibal Lecter Trilogy” 50+ dollar DVD box set now would it?

WHAT IS IT ABOUT?

A serial killer dubbed The Tooth Fairy has killed two entire families. He breaks into their houses, smashes all the mirrors and shoves broken pieces into their eye sockets so he can pose them and “see” himself being admired and accepted while he pleasures himself with the mother’s corpse. Tooth Fairy works on a lunar cycle and kills every full moon, so the FBI has 3 weeks to catch him before he kills again. Wanting to solve this case as fast as possible Bureau Chief Crawford rehires Will Graham, the retired agent who caught Hannibal Lecter. Graham has an almost emphatic ability to place himself into the serial killer psyche, a gift he can’t always turn off. As always in these movies, all roads lead to Lecter and Graham will find himself in front of his nemesis once again.

LECTER OR LECKTOR?

I bet you didn’t know that Lecter is the anglicized French pronunciation for “Reader”? I’m so very sure that WRITER Thomas Harris didn’t know either.

Unless you live under a rock, you know who Doctor Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter is. The character isn’t just popular; it’s one of those roles that have entered legend. If Michael Myers (and by proxy, Jason Voorhees) functions as the modern equivalent of Frankenstein, then Lecter is our Dracula. Smooth, suave, unflappable, sophisticated, the perfect dining companion provided that we don’t serve as the meal.

Unlike Dracula though, whose persona has been pissed on by a thousand bad actors, only two very very good actors have played Lecter; Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins.

Brian Cox did it first, so let’s start with him. In “Manhunter”, the character is called Hannibal Lecktor (Mann changed the spelling for some reason.) and is portrayed as a vicious but restrained psychotic; a man who carefully screens every gesture and word through an almost alien brain before unleashing himself to the outside world. To those who have grown used to Hopkins’ livelier portrayal it can be jarring at first to see Cox play Lecktor as a quiet intellectual snob. However, it’s an interesting interpretation and Hopkins ends up looking way over the top in comparison. Cox doesn’t crack jokes, never smiles and barely blinks. In fact, Lecktor doesn’t seem to have any emotions at all except for a kind of monstrous curiosity, the kind you might see on a cruel scientist dissecting a terrified lab rat. Even his incarceration doesn’t seem to particularly faze him.

The advantage of Cox’s portrait is that, movie or not, it’s believable. You totally buy the fact that Lecktor got away with murder by hiding behind amused upper crust detachment.

Hopkins, on the other hand, plays Lecter with a constant glint of crazed humor in his eye. The role is loud and brash, almost out of control; but Hopkins never loses his grip on Lecter and no matter how wild he gets he’s still in sync with the rest of the material, never overshadowing it. Just look at the scene where Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) first meets him in “Silence of The Lambs”. It’s a quieter moment than most people remember. Lecter just stands there and politely greets her with a smile. Even when he insults her about her economic background, he barely raises his voice. A lesser actor would have hammed it up or tried to steal the camera’s attention; but Hopkins knows when to turn it on or off and lets Foster do her thing too. It’s very slick, and the Oscar was deserved.

So by the time Hopkins made Red Dragon he had eleven years of doing “I ate his liver with some Fava Beans and a nice Chiati… slurp” at dinner parties under his belt. He could have played this in a coma. What was nice, though, is that he found a way to add a little bit of depth to the character’s personality even after 3 films. In “Silence of The Lambs” he’s charming and cruel. In “Hannibal” there’s a wild glee on his face, like he’s a child enjoying himself. Here he’s vicious and seething with resentment, like a newly caged wolf.

Personal preference makes me choose Cox because of the creepy disassociation he shows towards others, as if the simple fact that he’s smarter than everyone has made him not quite human anymore. It’s just scarier in my opinion. Or if you want a simpler explanation to why I chose the way I did, it’s this: Hopkins plays one of the best fictional villains I’ve ever seen, and Cox plays a psychopath. The former feels at home in a horror movie, the latter would feel at home in the Nuremberg trials.

BRETT RATNER AND MICHAEL MANN

Anyone remember who directed “Mighty Ducks”? Anyone? Anyone? Meh, don’t feel bad, because I don’t either.

Rush Hour, like it or not, falls into the above category of anonymous entertainment; and Brett Ratner directed both of them, along with the sappy Family Man, before fighting like a demon for the chance to do “Red Dragon”. At the time I felt that it was just another Hollywood hotshot trying to throw his weight around and swimming out of his artistic depth. I just braced myself for the inevitable bad reviews and “What the hell is this?” quotes from critics.

So it’s the understatement of a lifetime to say Brett Ratner outdid all expectations I had of him. I never thought of the man as an “artiste” in the least and, to be honest, never thought this was going to work, but when I’m wrong, I’m wrong. Far from ruining anything, he made an excellent film. The pace is almost perfect, which is a very rare thing in Hollywood. It’s also subtle (subtler than most films made in Hollywood anyway), which is something I’d never thought possible from a guy who directed two of the only four real life Looney Toon characters on the planet: Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan (The other two being Robin Williams and Jim Carrey FYI). “Red Dragon” is a true reinterpretation of the material, one of those rare remakes that echoes the original without ever feeling like a listless retread, this is the movie that the Psycho remake tried to be and failed. I do have a few issues here and there with it, but overall the film works.

Still, we have to remember that Brett is up against Michael Mann, the originator of “MTV style” filmmaking, and arguably the only person in Hollywood (or anywhere) ever to make that style work. That alone qualifies him as a genius in my book. Where guys like Michael Bay use star power, quick editing and mainstream music to try and look hip, Mann uses the same type of techniques to create mood and advance the plot. Also, Mann’s characters reveal a human side seldom seen in mainstream movies. This emotional nakedness is uncharacteristic of every other music video type movie out there and it’s the reason why Mann’s flashiness worked in “Manhunter”.

This ended up being a harder pick than I expected, but nonetheless Mann wins. While I admire Ratner’s remake, he had “Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal” to use as a template. Mann, on the other hand, made a film that was totally and completely his own.

The story continues in part two of MANHUNTER VS. RED DRAGON>>>




Posted on April 5, 2005 in Features by
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